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The legacy of Penny Marshall's work on Big

Contributed by
Dec 18, 2018

Big turned 30 this year and its safe to say that its legacy is still going strong. Helping to shift Tom Hanks from a potential flash-in-the-pan comedic actor to one of the most famous men in the world while granting many kids of the ‘80s and beyond the dream of what it would be like “to be big,” it is easily one of the best-beloved fantasy films ever made. Besides its many other achievements, this was the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the box office, making it essential viewing for cinema history buffs as well as casual viewers.

Behind it all was Penny Marshall, who had made a name for herself as an actor on Laverne & Shirley in the late ‘70s into the early '80s before taking time off to travel and ultimately to return to show business as a director. Marshall’s career will be perhaps best remembered for her directorial work, but she never fully retired from acting and over the last few years of her life she was still appearing in comedy shows like Portlandia and the Odd Couple. Having dedicated much of her life to comedy, her choices as a director were interesting in their ability to wrench incredibly humanizing moments out of otherwise humorous scenarios. By taking her subject matter neither too seriously nor too lightly, she gave us some of the more interesting comedies ever to grace the silver screen.

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The Story

Big is a body swap comedy in the classic mold — many films from Freaky Friday to 13 Going On 30 have repeated its essential formula to varying degrees of success. 12-year-old Josh Baskin goes to a carnival and makes a wish to Voltron the Fortune Teller to make him older so he would be able to do what he wants in life. To his surprise, that actually happens, but of course, he discovers that there are a great many downsides to being older. For instance, when he approaches his own mom, she is convinced he’s stolen her child, and he’s forced to flee. He ends up in New York, getting a room and a job as a data entry clerk at a toy company.

Josh is successful at the toy company due to his enthusiasm, but as he gets caught up in his dream job of testing toys and has increasingly less time to hang out with his best friend Billy, he starts to miss being a kid and to understand that he needs to go through his teen years to be a truly functional adult. Meanwhile, he began a very weird relationship with a woman named Susan. When he finds the Zoltar machine and reverses the change, Susan realizes that he was a child throughout their relationship, and takes him home after declining to return to her own preteen years via Zoltar.

In retrospect, the relationship aspect of Big is pretty uncomfortable, but beyond that, the movie is a tender kid’s fantasy of what being an adult might really be like. On its release, audiences of the late ‘80s went wild for it, and Marshall’s status as an important new director was solidified.

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The Making of Big

Big is one of those movies that really succeeded against all odds. The script was co-written by Gary Ross and Steven Spielberg’s sister Anna, and Spielberg was the original director signed up for the project, intending for Harrison Ford to play the role of Josh. Both of them eventually declined the project, and it was the producer James L. Brooks who then, in turn, offered it to Penny Marshall. This was her second film, the first being the generally panned Jumpin’ Jack Flash starring Whoopi Goldberg. She had been slated to direct Peggy Sue Got Married before leaving the production in frustration, leaving us only to dream of what could have been.

Big-name actors like Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, and Albert Brooks were approached for the role and all of them declined, while John Travolta, Sean Penn, and Gary Busey were briefly considered but didn’t work out for whatever individual reason. Robert De Niro, who was trying to expand his range by getting into more family oriented films after years of playing wild card antiheroes for the first several years of his film career, was attached to the project for a time, but ultimately turned it down, as well. Tom Hanks, who had already been approached and turned the script down, became interested, knowing De Niro had considered the role, and finally accepted.

Apparently, many of the actors that actually became involved were convinced the movie would do poorly. Jon Lovitz became ill, then simply declined to return to the set. Elizabeth Perkins would later state that she and Hanks were convinced the film would be forgotten. Several other body swap comedies were coming out at the same time, even as filming took place, and that led the cast to suspect the movie would inevitably flop.

Big did not flop. It is still regarded with nearly unanimous critical acclaim. While a few articles have gone into the darker elements of the film, for instance discussing the genuinely messed up relationship between Josh and Susan, even those pieces generally praise the film itself.

The Importance of Marshall’s Direction

Besides her own acting career, and having come from an artistically inclined family (well-known scriptwriter Garry Marshall is her brother), there is a certain stylism that follows Marshall’s career that indicates an intrinsic aesthetic sense at play in her films, from early works like Big to her last film as a director, Riding In Cars With Boys. Still, Marshall herself never seemed fully convinced of the success of the film or her skill as a director. In her own words, via an interview with the LA Times shortly after the release of Big, Marshall said, “I think my problem is that I have a massive insecurity complex combined with a very huge ego. If I could just trust my instincts, which I'm told are good, I'd be all right. But I never say, 'Do it this way because I want it this way.' I just mumble and make people keep asking me for my opinion until they get it out of me."

James Brooks dismissed this with his own assertion that Marshall’s insecurity was mostly a private affair as he praised her artistic insights and her compassion for the actors she worked with. "You can't do the job she's done and have it be dictated by insecurities,” he stated.

Still, Marshall did a lot in her life to garner a sympathetic view from many of those that worked with her. For one, Hanks worked again with Marshall on A League of Their Own, another successful pairing for the two of them. After filming Big, Marshall discussed at some length the rapport that was needed between her and Hanks to keep him from naturally overplaying the part as an adult imagining what a kid would do. To that effect, Marshall had David Moscow, who played the young version of Josh, filmed while acting out all of Tom Hanks’ parts so that Hanks would be able to give a more authentic performance. On Marshall’s passing, Hanks wrote, “Goodbye, Penny. Man, did we laugh a lot! Wish we still could. Love you. Hanx.”

In her life, Penny Marshall was known as a dedicated friend and family member. She was frank in interviews about her struggles with anxiety, self-consciousness, and fear of failure. Her incredibly impressive body of work isn’t always acknowledged for being either as successful nor so insightful as it really is. Big is unquestionably one of Marshall’s most impactful works, and certainly the film that cemented her career as a director. Although Marshall is gone, her work will be reaching new audiences for a long time to come.

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